Michael Waldman on Fighting for Our Voting Rights

The Brennan Center's Michael Waldman joins Daniella to discuss the need to pass voting rights reform in 2023.

Part of a Series

Michael Waldman from the Brennan Center for Justice joins Daniella to discuss the threats that election denial poses to U.S. democracy and the need to pass voting rights reform in 2023. Daniella also celebrates the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act into law, and positive indicators for U.S. economic recovery.


Daniella Gibbs Léger: Hey everyone, welcome back to “The Tent,” your place for politics, policy, and progress. I’m Daniella Gibbs Léger. The 2022 midterm elections happened over a month ago, but MAGA Republican election deniers are continuing to spread misinformation and conspiracies about the results. Michael Waldman from the Brennan Center for Justice is with us today to discuss continued MAGA efforts to undermine elections, ways to prioritize voting rights reform in 2023, and troubling threats to election integrity from the U.S. Supreme Court. But first, we’ve got to get to some news.

And it’s actually mostly good news today, believe it or not. This week, President [Joe] Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act, codifying the right to marriage for same-sex and interracial couples into federal law. A variation of this bill was introduced by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) over a decade ago, but it was pushed across the finish line by a number of outstanding champions, including [Rep.] David Cicilline (D-RI), [Rep.] Mondaire Jones (D-NY), [and] Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)—the first openly gay senator.

Unfortunately, it took 2022’s extreme right-wing MAGA Supreme Court threatening our rights to finally pass this important legislation. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade and allowed states to ban abortion, Justice Clarence Thomas indicated the Supreme Court should—and most likely would—look to revoke other rights Americans have long enjoyed. Justice Thomas specifically said the court should reconsider the right to use contraception and the right to same-sex marriage. With this clear threat on the horizon, congressional Democrats were finally able to move on federal protections for marriage rights.

And while it’s true that this was technically a bipartisan effort, let’s look at the numbers here: Every single Democrat in the House voted to support this bill, and they were joined by just 39 Republican members, while 169 MAGA extremists voted against the right to marry whoever you love. On the Senate side, just 12 Republicans voted for the bill. It’s outrageous to me that something as simple as same-sex and interracial marriage rights is a hang-up for anyone serving in Congress in the year 2022. I think President Biden really nicely summed that up in his comments at the White House bill signing this week, on why this should not be a partisan issue. Here he is:

President Biden, in comments at the White House signing of the Respect for Marriage Act: This law matters to every single American, no matter who you are or who you love. This shouldn’t be about conservative or liberal, red or blue. No—this is about realizing the promise of the Declaration of Independence, a promise that we’re all created equal.

Gibbs Léger: Now, we know we can’t stop here. Congress needs to take action to pass federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQI+ communities, such as those in the Equality Act. And let’s not forget that with Roe v. Wade having been struck down by the MAGA Supreme Court, we also desperately need to pass legislation at the federal level to protect abortion rights in this country for all Americans. But for now, I’m celebrating Tuesday’s historic victory for couples, families, and children nationwide. Hopefully, this is the momentum we need to ensure LGBTQI+ people in particular are treated fairly and equally under the law.

My next piece of good news is on the economic front. I must acknowledge that prices are still high and that many families are struggling, especially during this holiday season. But the economy is headed in the right direction thanks to President Biden making this issue his top domestic priority. According to data released this week, inflation is slowing and is down from its highest levels earlier this year. In addition, gas prices have dropped significantly and are now lower than they were a year ago. Energy and used car prices both declined in November, providing some much-needed relief. Consumer spending has been up this holiday season. And of course, we’ve seen record-setting job growth under this administration—over 10.5 million jobs created since President Biden took office.

So, we should be clear, despite what you might hear from the pundits and the media, we are transitioning towards the type of stable economic growth that is sustainable over the long term. Every other major economy is dealing with global challenges right now. But the difference here is that the fiscal policies that Democrats and the Biden administration have passed, like the Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure law, have strengthened our recovery, especially compared to other economies that have contracted or fallen flat. Because of these actions, our economy is forecast to have higher growth next year than just about every other G-7 [Group of Seven] country. Here’s President Biden speaking about these issues on Tuesday:

President Biden, in comments from the White House on the U.S. economy: In a world where inflation is rising at double digits in many major economies around the world, inflation is coming down in America. In fact, this new report is the fifth month in a row where annual inflation has fallen in the United States. Make no mistake: Prices are still too high. We have a lot more work to do. But things are getting better, headed in the right direction.

Gibbs Léger: He’s absolutely right here. But I want to make sure we remember that this recovery was not inevitable. Thanks to the response from the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress, we are better positioned to handle this period of high prices and global uncertainty from a position of strength. People will feel more relief as programs in the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS bill, and infrastructure law go into effect. And as inflation hopefully continues to wane, I’ve got my fingers crossed that things will start feeling a little better in 2023.

If there’s anything else you’d like us to cover on the pod, hit us up on Twitter @TheTentPod, that’s @TheTentPod. And please let us know what you think of the show. You can rate and review us wherever you’re streaming from, and we really appreciate your feedback. Stick around for our interview with Michael Waldman in just a beat.

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Gibbs Léger: Michael Waldman has been president of the Brennan Center for Justice since 2005. From 1995 to 1999, he served as director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton. He’s also the author of six books, including his latest, The Fight to Vote, a Washington Post notable nonfiction book for 2016. He frequently appears on television and radio and writes for publications like The New York Times and Politico on policy, the presidency, and the law. His forthcoming book on the Supreme Court, The Supermajority, comes out in June 2023.

Michael, thanks so much for joining us on “The Tent.”

Michael Waldman: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.

Gibbs Léger: We saw an unprecedented increase in election threats during the 2022 midterms, and people were rightfully worried about how things would go on and after Election Day. Now, many of the threats of outright violence—thankfully—fizzled out. But we did see some clear voter intimidation and we’re continuing to hear election denial from certain MAGA candidates who lost their races, like Kari Lake (R-AZ). So, what’s your general sense of the state of election denial right now, and what kind of public support does the “big lie” still have? Is it growing in popularity? Or is it shrinking?

Waldman: So, you’re exactly right that we’ve all said that American democracy is under extraordinary assault right now; that it is facing threats of a kind it has not faced in a long time, if ever; and that this election in 2022 was an extremely important moment in that fight for democracy, both on its own terms, and as a dress rehearsal for 2024. And in the run-up to this election, we had the wave of voter suppression laws, we had threats against election officials, threats of disruption, and the really scary prospect of election deniers running for and maybe winning the offices that would control the machinery of elections in key states—secretary of state, or in some cases, governor.

Looking back at this election now, we really missed the worst of it. It really was, in many ways, a pretty successful day for democracy. First of all, the election itself was more or less smooth, and safe, and kind of normal. There were occasional threats and occasional attempts to disrupt. But this time election officials—and law enforcement, who finally mobilized to work with them—were ready. And most voters certainly had an unimpeded access to the polls. Now, you still had the longstanding and racially discriminatory—in many cases—problems of, for example, long lines at the polls in some neighborhoods but not in others. But basically, the election worked pretty well.

Then there was another bit of news that was quite encouraging, which is the election deniers were rejected roundly by the voters. Every single one of the election deniers running to control either secretary of state or the governor in a key swing state all lost, and they ran behind other people. Think about Arizona. There were people who voted for Kari Lake for governor, but who thought that the election denier running for secretary of state was just too crazy to vote for. And you saw this all over the country. So, it really showed one thing that we certainly had always hoped to be the case, which was we all are unnerved and appalled by the rise of this anti-democratic election-denier movement. And it’s quite clear that there is a democracy movement, too. It has a lot of strength and a lot of support. And the voters, it turned out, really do care about this stuff. This issue turned out to be quite important for independents and for some Republicans, too.

That doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods. We still see Kari Lake claiming she really was robbed, just the same way [Donald] Trump did. There are many too many election deniers taking office in Congress. We just learned of texts in the last few days from a member of Congress who, three days before [President] Biden was inaugurated, texted Mark Meadows and said, “You need to declare martial law.” And when confronted with this, the guy only said, “Oh, well, I think I misspelled martial.” So, there are a lot of unrepentant anti-democracy, proto-authoritarians still in power. But I do think that the steam is going out of the election-denier movement, at least we have to make that be the case. We have to hope it’s true. But we have to continue making the case that this is a loser politically, that people in America understand the importance of democracy and really don’t like it when people try to take it away.

Gibbs Léger: So, in terms of the places that we still need to pay attention to, we saw counties in Arizona and Pennsylvania that actually refused to certify the results of the 2022 midterms. And those cases were isolated and ultimately had little impact on the overall results. I think it’s the first time we’ve seen something like this. So, how does it work when these counties refused to certify the votes?

Waldman: You’re right that it was isolated, and it was small counties. It was often places that the Republicans actually won. But it’s a real warning that our election system—with all its different twists and turns, and quirks, and antiquated methods—creates these opportunities where people can cause trouble. Remember, this almost happened in 2020. Trump was lobbying the canvassing board in Detroit to not certify. And here you have these people refusing to certify, and in the end threats of lawsuits or actions by courts forced them to, but we have to be very much on guard against that happening in the future, which means the fight continues.

One of the things that we’re all looking at right now in this lame duck session of Congress, there are two pieces of legislation that can help continue to strengthen the battlements of our democracy in preparation for 2024. One of them is the Electoral Count Reform Act. Now, that is this really antiquated statute that was passed in the late 1800s, of how the electoral votes get counted. And it has never really mattered very much, because up until 2020, candidates of both parties understood that the peaceful transfer of power was important, and we’re going to honor the will of the voters. And what Trump was trying to do in overthrowing the election was illegal. But there were also things in this very clunky old law that created ambiguity. So, I think it’s a good thing for Congress to fix it. It’s considered as a strong possibility. Senator [Chuck] Schumer (D-NY) said this week that he was hoping it was going to be in the omnibus spending bill. Senator [Mitch] McConnell (R-KY) and 15 other Republicans are for it. So, it really ought to be done now because next year, when the Republicans control the House of Representatives, it ain’t happening.

The other thing that would have an impact in the states, too, is Congress needs to—we think—put some money into the system—$400 million—to shore up and continue modernizing election administration in the states. Those are the kinds of things that can help stop counties and others from getting frisky in the future. It’s not foolproof, but the more we can do to make clear that the law is what it is, and that voter suppression and denial of democracy is just unacceptable, the better. It just turns out that a lot of the time, this stuff was not in enforceable laws, it just was accepted by everybody that the voters’ will was what was going to matter. None of us are really terribly used to dealing with mass delusion—or at least politicians who are so power hungry that they’re willing to just ignore the results of the elections. We’re all having to deal with it now. And unfortunately, I think we’re going to have to deal with it for a while going forward.

Gibbs Léger: I want to touch more on voter suppression because in addition to the attempts to undermine elections by just throwing out the votes, you have things where MAGA Republicans are attacking voting rights. One place that we saw this take place was in Georgia, where they really tried to cut back on things like early voting. And I wanted to ask you if we were able to see any of the early impacts of these restrictions on voting rights in the Georgia midterms, in the runoff. Did it affect turnout numbers or anything like that?

Waldman: It’s a great question and I want to be precise and nuanced in my answer because, as you know, in 2020—despite the pandemic—it was the highest voter turnout since 1900. It was a really amazing civic achievement. And one of the results of that was Trump’s “big lie” and the insurrection driven by the big lie, and then all these voting laws pushed by Republicans across the country, also driven by the big lie, or at least justified by it, that tried in various ways to cut back on voting. And Georgia was probably the highest visibility example. And it’s important to remember these laws, some of them are stronger than others. Some of them were weaker than others. Some of them got changed as they went through the legislative process, which happened in Georgia. But even the weaker and less dangerous versions, they were all pretty precisely targeted in ways that affected voters of color, young voters, poorer voters. And so, in Georgia, the law that passed was not as bad as it was a few days before it passed. I mean, they really eliminated early voting on the day used by African American churches. They basically, in the original version, made it almost impossible for anyone under 65 to vote by mail, as examples. And there was such a pushback—major corporations pushed back, the Republican lieutenant governor of Georgia refused to preside over the state Senate if they were going to pass that law—they really cut back on it a lot. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an impact.

So now, what happened in these elections? Everybody’s looking at the election and looking, of course, at the runoff, where you had [Sen.] Reverend Warnock (D-GA) reelected to the Senate. He had very significant turnout, high turnout in both the general election and in the runoff. And sometimes some of those who were pushing these laws say, “Hey, see, look at all the turnout. There’s no voter suppression. You were crying wolf the whole time. It was all a big misunderstanding.” And higher turnout is great. Of course, we don’t know how much higher it would have been without these laws. But what is clear is that the turnout gap between white voters and nonwhite voters not only remains under these laws but seems to have widened considerably. And that’s true in Georgia based on the evidence from the primaries. We don’t have the immediate evidence now from the general election.

It’s also true when you look at the laws in Texas, where they had an omnibus voter suppression law with kind of every bad thing you can think of all in one bill. And one of the things that happened in Texas is that tens of thousands of ballot applications from registered voters got rejected, and very disproportionately among Latino voters and Black voters. So, even if turnout was high—which very happily it was—and even if it is the case that candidates’ campaigns and movements had to overcome the voter suppression by out-organizing the voter suppression, it still seems to be the case that there was a racially disparate impact of all these laws. We don’t know that for sure. But that was the case in the primaries.

Gibbs Léger: So, I know we talked earlier about the Electoral Count Act, and some other measures that might get passed in the lame duck session. But comprehensive voting rights reform, that is something that we are all still clamoring for. And it didn’t happen in the past Congress. Do you see a path forward for this in 2023? Or is this going to have to wait until Democrats take control of the House again?

Waldman: I am not under a lot of illusions that [Rep.] Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) House of Representatives is going to be passing voting rights laws any time soon. We think—I think—the lessons of history are clear that national legislation is utterly necessary. It’s hard to get, but it’s utterly necessary to protect voting rights everywhere, to set voting standards everywhere. The legislation that I was so involved with, that the Brennan Center for Justice, which I lead, was so involved with, and CAP was so involved with—the Freedom to Vote John Lewis Voting Rights Act was its final name—was the most important civil rights bill in decades. It would have been extraordinarily valuable for our democracy. It would’ve restored the strength of the Voting Rights Act after it’s been gutted and demolished and decimated by the Supreme Court. It would have banned partisan gerrymandering everywhere in the country, not just in the states where the courts are doing it, which is only some of the states. It would have ended dark money in elections, and it would have had national automatic voter registration, dealt with felony disenfranchisement. It was a really strong bill. We were very proud to have worked on it and continue to believe it was the most important priority for the Congress. And it was really encouraging that so many of the Democrats understood that, giving it—among other thing—the name “S. 1” and “H.R. 1,” which matters quite a lot.

We came so close. It passed the House of Representatives. President Biden said he was eager to sign it. And it had a majority of the Senate. But as you know, because of the filibuster, it was not able to pass and Senators [Joe] Manchin (D-WV) and [Kyrsten] Sinema (I-AZ) would not change the filibuster to make it possible for this vital voting rights legislation to pass. And sometimes people say, “Oh, well didn’t you know Manchin and Sinema were going to do that?” And Manchin, in particular, we were really disappointed because he had worked so hard on the legislation himself, [as] former secretary of state of West Virginia. But at the beginning of the year, there were many Democratic senators who actually were very reluctant to do anything with the filibuster, but who saw how important it was to make it so that this kind of legislation could pass by majority rule. You’ve now got, with the new Senate, I believe about, by my count, 49 Democratic senators willing to make an exception to or change the filibuster for voting rights legislation.

This is an idea whose time has come. It hasn’t passed yet, but it is going to pass. And the public—we see now in this election—cares about this stuff, cares about democracy. And, you know, I absolutely wish it had passed this past Congress. But I’m reminded that voting rights, among the civil rights bills, failed in 1957. It failed in 1960. It failed to be in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, before finally, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act passed. So, we have to keep at it. We have to keep at it. There is nothing more important. And again, it’s the nature of our country. If we have a situation that is like this, if Congress cannot protect voting rights because of the filibuster, even when there’s a majority, and the federal courts and the Supreme Court will not protect voting rights—because they will not—then that means states can abuse the rights of their citizens. And there’s not much in the federal constitution or federal law to stop them. So, we can’t let that be the case.

Gibbs Léger: You know, intellectually, I understand why they’re doing it. It’s about a naked power play on the right. But when you look at every other democratized country and how they make it easier for people to vote, I don’t understand how we are living in a society that is actively making it harder for people to vote, that is throwing up canard after canard about voter fraud happening, and that’s why they have to put in all these draconian measures. I hope that that you are right. Nothing’s going to happen with [Rep.] McCarthy’s House. So, maybe in two more years, we can get this bill passed. But are we missing something? Is there something else that we should be doing in terms of our advocacy around this? I feel like we’ve been doing a pretty good job of explaining why this is important. But yet, and still, we’re here. And I’m imagining that a lot of listeners feel this way too.

Waldman: I think that right now, there is more of an understanding of the centrality of the health of our democracy as an issue than has been the case in a long time. I’ve worked on this stuff far too long—actually for decades in a variety of jobs—and I have not seen the depth and breadth and diversity of the coalitions pushing for comprehensive democracy reform. That includes money in politics and redistricting, as well as voting. Turned out, it was really pretty important, I think, to have those issues understood as being part of the same fight, because otherwise it was really easy to divide movements. And it kept these issues, among other things, from rising up to the top tier of progressive issues. But it’s an interesting question.

The last book I wrote was called The Fight to Vote. And I wrote it in part to educate myself about this very question of, “Why is this happening now?” I mean, when I was in school, voting rights was in the history books. It wasn’t current events. It had been settled. Especially after 1965, we really had a multiracial democracy established in this country for the first time. But it wasn’t really ultimately that controversial. And yes, we know that there are many things after Bush v. Gore when people saw how flimsy the system was, the demographic change in the country, and the white backlash, manifesting itself in these voting laws and the false claims of fraud. And it’s unnerving that it’s happening now. But when I went back and looked at the history, it turns out we’ve been having these fights from the very beginning of the country. And it’s really not a surprise that this very basic issue of who has power in a democracy is something we fight about. It’s often been raw and raucous and often very partisan, not just now. I went back, as I said, to the beginning in this book, The Fight to Vote, and the book starts with a time when we were not by any stretch of anybody’s imagination a democracy. Only white men who owned property could vote. And even at that moment, there was a fight over whether that is the way it ought to be.

The book starts with Thomas Jefferson writing the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and saying in that not just that we break with Great Britain, but that government is legitimate only if it rests on the “consent of the governed.” And that was a really radical notion at the time. Now, we know Jefferson was a massive hypocrite at the very best, and when he wrote that he was being attended to by a 14-year-old enslaved boy, Tom Hemings. But the idea was so powerful, it began to shake things up, and you began to see right away the fight take hold. In Pennsylvania, Ben Franklin wrote the constitution for that new state. And he eliminated the property requirement for voting so poor and working-class men of all races could vote. And Ben Franklin explained why—he said, “There’s a man who owns a jackass, and it’s worth $50. So, the man can vote. Then the jackass dies. The man is older, the man is wiser, but the jackass is dead. So, the man cannot vote. So therefore,” Ben Franklin asked, “Who really has the right to vote, the man or the jackass?” Pretty good question.

Up in Massachusetts, John Adams was writing their constitution. And they said to him, “Hey, you ought to do what they did down in Pennsylvania and eliminate that property requirement for voting.” And John Adams was aghast by that idea. He said, “If we do that, women will demand the right to vote, lads of 18 will demand the right to vote, and men who have not a farthing to their name will think themselves worthy of an equal voice in government and they will demand the right to vote.” And John Adams said, “There will be no end of it.”

And that’s kind of the history of the country—some people demanding an expanded democracy, a seat at the table, a voice in power, and others fighting against them, trying to hold on to the power they have and turn the clock back. And that has been the history of the country. So, at one level, I don’t know if it makes us feel better that we’re sort of part of this ongoing story. But John Adams was kind of right, there is no end of it. So that maybe gives me a little comfort that we’re part of the great American story. And it shouldn’t unnerve us quite as much as it does otherwise.

Gibbs Léger: And that we are ultimately on the right side of history, right? Well, I think that is a positive note to end this interview on. Michael Waldman, I want to thank you so much for joining us on “The Tent” today.

Waldman: Thank you.

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Gibbs Léger: As always, thanks for listening. Be sure to go back and check out our previous episodes. So, today has been a bit of a day. There’s this big storm that’s sweeping the nation and it hit the East Coast with some rain. I guess they thought there was going to be ice, so they proactively did a two-hour delay for schools. The government did a two-hour delay. Normally, I’m like, “Cool, that’s great,” but it really just threw a big wrench in my morning plans with my child. And then, I was almost at the office—this is such a D.C. thing that I’m about to say—I was almost at the office about to make that left-hand turn onto H Street, and then they shut the street down for a motorcade, and I was like, “Ah, Biden.” As I rolled my window down, getting all wet in the rain, I was like, “Hey, guys, I’m just going in that parking lot right over there. Can you let me go?” And of course, they were like, “No.” So anyway, that was my morning today, but that’s fine. I understand, better safe than sorry, but really, it was just rain.

I want to finish by talking about the World Cup. So, as has been discussed, I love soccer—it’s great—football, whatever you want to call it. The finals are going to be on Sunday, and it is France versus Argentina. I was very torn in the France game. France is my number two team after the American team. But how can you not root for Morocco? I mean, the first African team to make it to a semifinal? That’s incredible. But France was just too good. And [Kylian] Mbappé was just too good. And I’m really, really excited to watch what’s going to be an incredible match with [Lionel] Messi going against the France team. And I think if France wins, they’ll be the first team since Pelé and Brazil to win back to backs. So, that’s going to be great. The thing I love the most about the World Cup, unlike the World Series—which, why do we call it the World Series when it’s only played in America? I don’t know. We should talk about that—and the Super Bowl is this really is the World Cup. It brings together just everybody. And it’s so great to feel a part of something that everyone else is experiencing and enjoying at the same time. It’s hard to explain, but my sister lives in Italy and she was coming home from visiting my parents, so she spent a few days in Paris. And she was there when France beat whoever they beat before Morocco—I’m blanking on it—and just the electricity, like you could hear it in the background while talking to her. It’s just great. I love it. And whatever happens on Sunday, it’s been a great tournament, watching the players. I do not condone how Qatar got it, the way they handled it, the way they treated their workers. That is a separate issue altogether. I’m talking about the players who play this beautiful sport that my now 5-year-old is practicing in my living room every night. And he cannot wait to see France win on Sunday. It’s so precious. So anyway, whether you like the World Cup or not, I think it’s just a great moment. So, I just wanted to share that with you.

The holidays are truly upon us. I hope you all are taking care of yourselves, getting boosted, doing all the stuff that you need to do to keep you and your family safe. And we will talk to you next week. Take care.

“The Tent” is a podcast from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It’s hosted by me Daniella Gibbs Léger. Erin Phillips is our lead producer. Kelly McCoy is our supervising producer. And Sam Signorelli is our digital producer. You can find us on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Daniella Gibbs Léger

Executive Vice President, Communications and Strategy


Erin Phillips

Broadcast Media Manager

Kelly McCoy

Senior Director of Broadcast Communications

Sam Signorelli

Policy and Outreach Associate, Government Affairs

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